Author: Raj Chandler • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • March 31, 2021
Muscle building is a fitness concept surrounded by a lot of misconceptions. One of the common points of confusion is the difference between toning and bulking and their respective best practices. From a physiological standpoint, the body is only able to gain, maintain, or lose muscle mass. There is no other way to change the look or shape of muscles.
The ideas of “toning” and “bulking” are used as verbs, but they are actually more referential to types of physiques. A toned physique is one that is lean, with noticeable muscle definition despite a lack of body fat. On the other hand, someone with bulk is generally someone with larger muscles. It's often associated with bodybuilders who need to build muscle through strength training and diet.
In this blog post, we'll explain the concepts of toning and bulking, compare them to one another, and discuss how protein is important no matter which you are trying to achieve.
What is toning?
When you hear someone talk about "lean muscle" or "getting lean" as it relates to body composition, they might also mention wanting to "get toned." Some companies use the idea of toning in their marketing as a way to promote equipment or training plans designed to target specific muscle groups.
In fact, the process of toning – gaining muscle visibility without adding too much size – is the same as bulking. In either case, you need to work on building muscle through lifting weights and consuming enough protein. If you want to achieve a toned look, you will probably incorporate more cardio than someone focusing strictly on bulking.
You'll also need to adjust your caloric intake and proportions of carbohydrates, fat and protein in your diet if you want to get toned instead of bulking. While those who are focused on muscle growth through bulking need to have a calorie intake higher than what they burn, if you are toning you'll want to consume enough to stay the same weight. In some cases when toning, you may even want to be at a caloric deficit.
What is bulking?
"Bulking" is a frequently-used term in fitness and bodybuilding. It focuses on muscle gain first and foremost, without as much concern for definition or muscle visibility. A successful bulk requires a caloric surplus as well as a dedicated strength training routine that involves lifting multiple times per week.
Most of the time, bodybuilders or those who are serious about putting on muscle will divide their workout routines into two phases: bulking and cutting. When bulking, the focus is on adding size. Weight gain is expected during this phase, although the goal is to get the new weight to be mostly muscle. While cutting, you'll be focused on losing fat while maintaining as much muscle mass as possible. Another way to think about it is to view bulking as adding muscle and fat, while cutting focuses on losing fat to reveal more of the muscle built while bulking.
Like toning, you'll need to engage in regular weight training using a routine that hits all muscle groups. With bulking, however, it's more important to ensure you have a sufficient calorie intake and are consuming enough grams of protein per day to contribute to muscle gain. Most active adults looking to add muscle should aim for between 0.7 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day.
Those who are bulking also tend to focus on weight training with dumbbells, barbells, and other resistance training equipment. The fastest way to promote muscle gain is lifting heavy weights, since it's been shown to contribute to hypertrophy, the process by which muscle fibers become thicker and stronger in response to stress from weight lifting.
As you can see, both toning and bulking focus on developing muscle size. The key difference is toning also requires control of body weight, to ensure the muscles you are developing during your workout routine are visible. On the other hand, people who are in a bulking phase need to increase calories and emphasize their protein intake. You'll often see bodybuilders and other serious lifters drinking whey protein shakes before and after their workouts, as a way to make it easy to keep protein consumption high.
However, toning requires sufficient protein as well, since most people need to develop their muscles to make them more visible. The difference is that people who are bulking tend to focus more on a caloric surplus. Often (but not always), someone who is bulking will consume more grams of protein per day than someone toning.
Whether you're looking for size or want to get more toned, protein intake is the common thread that should be managed properly to help you achieve your fitness goals.
While fats and carbohydrates are important for your overall health and should be considered as part of a comprehensive nutrition plan, protein is the most critical nutrient for muscle development. If you're toning, you need to maintain a sufficient level of protein intake within your daily caloric goal to ensure you don't lose muscle mass, which will detract from the "toned" look. And if you're in a bulking phase already, you probably know how important it is to consume enough protein to gain muscle. The specific amount of protein you consume will vary depending on your activity level, body type, and your previous training experience.
Just as with protein, you also need to think about your consumption of other macronutrients. Since toning and bulking will sometimes involve different kinds of activities, you'll need to program your diet differently to fuel each activity. For example, if part of your toning workout program involves cardio, you may need to increase your daily intake of carbs so that you can fuel your body and muscles for this type of activity. On the other hand, weight lifters who are primarily concerned with size might want to limit carbs in comparison to someone who is using lighter weights and focused more on toning.
Whether bulking or toning, protein needs will make up a large percentage of your total calories, but you also want to consider your ratio of macronutrient intake. This is the amount of proteins, fats and carbs you consume relative to your daily caloric goal. For example, during certain phases of training for toning and building muscle, you might have a macronutrient ratio where 30% of your total calories are fats, 45% are carbs, and 25% is protein. These proportions vary based on your fitness goals, gender, and activity type and amount.
Finally, protein can also be valuable for health reasons outside of weight training. Studies have indicated that protein is closely associated with satiety, which is an important tool for helping you control caloric intake. Consuming the right amount of calories is important for weight loss. Protein is also beneficial for general wellness. Research links sufficient protein intake with healthier skin, hair and bones.
Even though they might seem different, toning and bulking actually have more in common than you might think. Both processes require consistency in hitting the gym to lift, as well as a commitment to consuming the right amount of calories and macronutrients each day.
Those who are bulking will focus primarily on consuming enough protein each day and lifting heavy. Someone interested in toning, on the other hand, may be more concerned with maintaining the same weight or even some level of weight loss to achieve the desired look.
Another shared requirement for bulking and toning is protein consumption. Whether you're upping your intake of lean meats and beans, making a regular habit of consuming protein powder shakes, or both, it's important to maintain a sufficient protein intake so that your muscles have the fuel they need to grow and maintain size. With high quality protein supplements like Gainful's line of personalized protein powder and pre-workout drinks, you'll have everything you need to get closer to the physique that you want – whatever that looks like.
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